Extant Laurasiatheria

Carnivora

Order: Carnivora
Families: 8
Species: 283

The seven families of Carnivora are:

Canidae (dogs, jackals, coyotes, dholes, wolves and foxes), Ursidae (Bears), Procyonidae (racoons, coatis, ringtails, kinkajous, olingos and the lesser or red panda), Mustelidae (Skunks, martens, badgers, otters, minks, weasel, etc), Viverridae (Civets, meerkats, mongoose), Hyaenidae (Hyenas and aardwolf), Felidae (Cats, lynx, tigers, lions, leopards, serval, caracal, etc) and Pinnipedia (seals and sea lions). The Pinnipedia are actually thought to be divided into 3 groups that come from two origins. The Otariidae (sea lions) and Odobenidae (walruses) are likely to have come from bear-like ancestors. The third family Phocidae (true seals) are grouped with the otters. Here they are kept in a single Order; the Pinnipedia and are discussed together for ease.

Despite the name, the Order Carnivora does not exclusively comprise of meat eaters. Other placentals are also carnivorous, killer whales for example, but are not included in this Order. Similarly, there are member of the Carnivora who are either omnivores or even completely herbivores for example the Giant Panda. The apomorphy that unites these species is the presence of the carnassials and the penis bone. Carnivores are indigenous to most continents except Antarctica and Australasia, and are the dominant predators in every environment. Despite not having any endemic species of carnivore, Australasia now has large populations due to human interference. The majority of carnivores are adept hunters with sharp teeth and claws, acute hearing and eyesight and an extremely good sense of smell. Most carnivores except for cats but including the cheetah have non retractable claws. The remaining members of the Felidae family have retractable claws that they use for predation, climbing and defence.

Social groups are species dependant. Tigers and leopards for example are solitary mammals that will attack another of their species if territories are breached. In contrast lions and wolves for example live and hunt in prides or packs. In the more sociable species, shared parenting is common, where the adults will take it in turns to watch over all the offspring within the group. Predatory carnivores have specialised spines which have evolved to be extremely flexible, allowing them to run at high speeds after prey. The cheetah can sprint over 100 kph in short bursts before it begins to overheat and has to stop to cool down. Canidae, Ursidae and Felidae are covered in more detail below.

 

Family: Canidae
Species: 36

The Canidae comprise dogs, wolves, jackals, foxes, dhole and coyotes. Canids are known for their endurance rather than their speed and as such are adept at pack hunting. They are opportunists that in some species have led to their destruction; species such as the wolf have been persecuted to the brink of extinction for preying upon livestock and domestic pets. Other species such as coyotes and foxes have been luckier in their opportunistic behaviour and are thriving on the spread of urban habitats. Those that have not adapted to utilising urban areas inhabit open grasslands. They are endemic to most parts of the world and are only naturally absent from isolated areas such as Madagascar and New Zealand. Of course the domestic dog has now been introduced by man.

All members of the canid family have four toes on the back feet and five toes on the front feet, plus hard pads to allow long distance running. They also have a long muzzle, fang-like canines, well developed eyesight and an acute sense of hearing. Canids mostly live in packs with an alpha pair and a complex hierarchical system that requires constant social activities to maintain dominance and promote bonding.

 

Example species:

African Wild Dog
Lycaon pictus

Length: 76-110 cm
Weight: 17-36 kg
Social unit: Group
Region: Africa
Status: Endangered

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus)
West Midlands Safari Park, UK

 

Grey Wolf
Canis lupus

Length: 1-1.5 m
Weight: 16-60 kg
Social unit: Group
Region: North America, Europe, Asia and Greenland
Status: Vulnerable

 

Grey Wolf (Canis lupus)
West Yellowstone Grizzly Bear and Wolf Sanctuary, USA

 

Fennec Fox
Vulpes zerda

Length: 24-41 cm
Weight: 1-1.5 kg
Social unit: Group
Region: North Africa and West Asia
Status: Unconfirmed

 

Fennec fox (Vulpes zerda)
Phoenix Zoo, Arizona, USA

 

Complete articulated wolf skeleton (Unknown species)
Bristol City Museum, UK

 

 

 

Family: Ursidae
Species: 8

The Ursidae family comprises the bears and includes the largest terrestrial carnivore; the brown bear, Ursus arctos. When it rears up onto its hind legs, the brown bear can reach over 3.5 m high. Male bears are normally up to 20% larger than females but all are heavily built with stocky legs, a large skull and a small tail. Except for the giant panda, all species of bear have white, brown or black fur, and some have a white or yellow patch on their chest. Bears have a large snout, but small ears and small eyes. This is reflected in their sensory acuity; their sense of smell is highly developed but their sight and hearing is not as keen. Despite the carnassials linking the carnivores together, the 8 species of extant bear have lost the function of the sharp molars and instead have developed flat molars with rounded cusps, which they use for grinding vegetation.

Bears have very large, powerful forearms with non-retractable claws. A single blow from a bears paw can often kill an animal. Bears walk in a plantigrade fashion, with all five toes and their heels placed on the ground at the same time. However when threatened or when fighting with other bears, they can rear up onto two legs in order to increase their already tremendous size. Despite their size, most bears are extremely agile climbers.

 

Example species:

Brown Bear
Ursus arctos

Length: 2-3 m
Weight: 100-1000 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: North and North-West North America, North Europe and Asia
Status: Lower risk

 

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis)
West Yellowstone Grizzly Bear and Wolf Sanctuary, USA

 

Spectacled Bear
Tremarctos ornatus

Length: 1.5-2 m
Weight: 140-175 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: West South America
Status: Vulnerable

 

Spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus)
Phoenix Zoo, Arizona, USA

 

Asiatic black bear
Ursus thibetanus

Length: 1.3-1.9 m
Weight: 100-200 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: East, South and South-East Asia
Status: Vulnerable

 

Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus)
Dudley Zoological Gardens, UK

 

Family: Procyonidae
Species: 20

The Procyonidae comprise the mischievous, dextrous racoons and similar mammals. The affinity of the red panda is uncertain, and recent studies have suggested a classification in the Family Ailuridae with the giant panda, but this is unconfirmed. All members of the Procyonidae (including the red panda) are medium sized opportunists with a long tail, short legs and a plantigrade gait. They mostly have non-retractable claws used for finding food and for grip when they climb. The red panda has partially retractable claws and is an agile climber, spending most of its time sunbathing or sleeping in tree tops. Ringtails and kinajous are also highly arboreal and have developed the ability to rotate their ankle joints and hang by their feet. This allows them to feed upside down or commonly to descend from a tree. Most species are omnivorous and although their diet is dictated by their species specific environment, their diets are extremely varied. The racoon especially is an opportunistic feeder who will scavenge on human waste in urban areas, but they naturally eat nuts and seeds and have the ability to catch fish.

 

Example Species:

Common racoon
Procyon lotor

Length: 40-65 cm
Weight: 38 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: South and Central America
Status: Common

 

 

Common racoon (Procyon lotor)
Phoenix Zoo, Arizona, USA

 

 

Lesser (red) panda
Ailurus fulgens

Length: 50-64 cm
Weight: 3-6 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: South to South-east Asia
Status: Endangered

 

Lesser (red) panda (Ailurus fulgens)
Dudley Zoological Gardens, UK

 

 

Lesser (red) panda (Ailurus fulgens)
Bristol Zoo and Gardens, UK

 

Family: Mustelidae
Species: 67

The Mustelidae is the most diverse family and has the highest number of species. They have also filled the largest number of niches for example; the otter is aquatic, minks are semi-aquatic, martens are arboreal, skunks are terrestrial and badgers are burrowers. Their main homogeneous characteristic is an elongated body and short legs. All have tails, but they are shortened in some species, such as the badger. All mustellids have small ears, s short snout, non-retractable curved claws and 5 toes on each foot. This is unusual in carnivores, which normally have five toes on each paw. All members of the Order also have scent glands in the anus (for which the skunk is famous), from which is produced an oily strong-smelling liquid called musk. They use this smell which is excreted in faces to mark their territories. Their diets are extremely species specific given the wide variety of ecological niches that they have filled. Otter shave the ability to use tools. They float on their backs and place a stone on their stomach. They then repeatedly hit shellfish on the stone until the shell cracks open and they are able to prise out the contents to eat. Weasels and stoats can be aggressive hunters and frequently kill prey larger than themselves, most often from the Lagomorph Order. As with Lagomorphs, ovulation in female Mustelids is induced by copulation which can last up to two hours. The gestation period is only 1-2 months but the female may carry around the fertilised egg in a dormant state for nearly a year until the conditions are favourable for implantation.

 

Example Species:

Eurasian badger
Meles meles

Length: 56-90 cm
Weight: 10-12 kg
Social unit: Group
Region: Europe and East Asia
Status: Locally common

 

Eurasian badger (Meles meles)
Bristol City Museum, UK

 

Female Eurasian badger skull (Meles meles)
Dextral view (left) and ventral view (right)
Personal collection

 


Family: Viverridae
Species: 76

The Vivarridae include civets, genets, the binturong, mongooses and fossa. They are essentially primitive relative of the Felidae and Hyaenidae and as such exhibit a longer snout and more teeth. Vivarrids inhabit a variety of environments from deserts and savannas to forests. Although the majority are terrestrial there are exceptions such as the semi-aquatic otter and the arboreal binturong. Most viverrids are omnivorous, feeding on invertebrates, small birds and lizards, but some, such as the two-spotted palm civet eat only fruit. A few are carnivorous and hunt prey in a stalking fashion similar to that exhibited by members of the Felidae. Most species within this order do not form social groups, choosing instead to live in isolation. Species such as the dwarf mongoose however live in social groups. They communicate with each other using high pitched 'beeps'. Meerkats depend on such social structures to avoid predators. In any group of meerkats, sentries can be seen standing on erect their hind-limbs watching for danger whilst the remainder forage for food.

 

Example Species:

 

Meerkat
Suricata suricatta

Length: 25-35 cm
Weight: 600-975 g
Social unit: Group
Region: Southern Africa
Status: Common

 

 

Meerkat (Suricata suricatta)
Phoenix Zoo, Arizona, USA

 

Mongoose (Unknown species)
Dudley Zoological Gardens, UK

 


Family: Hyaenidae
Species: 4

The Hyaenidae include the three species of hyena plus the aardwolf. Although traditionally thought of as dogs, both the hyena and the aardwolf (Proteles cristatus) are actually more closely related to the Felidae and Viverridae. Their offspring are therefore called cubs, and not pups. They are all primarily nocturnal and sleep in dens during the day that they dig to shelter both the adults and the cubs, except the spotted hyena where only the cubs sleep in the den. Besides the striped hyena whose geographic location extends to southern parts of Asia, all hyenas and the aardwolf are restricted to Africa. They are easily recognisable by their large ears and distinctive spine that slopes posteriorly form the shoulder. All exhibit multi-coloured fur and in the case of the hyenas are classified upon their individual fur pattern i.e. the spotted hyena (crocuta crocuta) and the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena). The Aardwolf is the smallest member of the Hyaendiae, measuring only 67 cm, which is less than half the size of the spotted and brown (Parahyaena brunnea) hyenas. All four species have four toes on both the front and back feet, except just the front paws of the aardwolf, which has five toes. Aardwolves live in solitude. Brown and striped hyenas live ion pairs or small groups. Spotted hyenas however live in clans of up to 80 individuals. Hunting and parenting occurs in groups in the spotted hyena. A strong clan can take down prey as a large as a zebra in a coordinated effort.

 

Example Species:

Spotted hyaena
Crocuta crocuta

Length: 1.3 m
Weight: 62-70 kg
Social unit: Group
Region: West to East and Southern Africa
Status: Lower risk

 

Aardwolf
Proteles cristatus

Length: 67 cm
Weight: 9kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: East and Southern Africa
Status: Lower risk

 

 

Family: Felidae
Species: 38

The Felidae, or cat family, are designed to be voracious hunters from the 2 kg flat-headed cat (Felis planiceps) to the 300 kg Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). They have muscular bodies, acute senses of smell, sight and hearing, sharp retractable claws and a diverse variety of camouflage patterns on their fur. Unlike most other Orders, all members of the Felidae are morphologically very similar to the point that in some cases only size and colouration are the only differences to the untrained eye. All species have a rounded face with a short muzzle but a wide gape. Their characteristics carnassials are highly developed and compliment their elongated canines and strong jaws to deliver a powerful bite with the capability of puncturing and tearing flesh. In the majority of species, the tail is long and very mobile. In the cheetah for example, the tail is used as a rudder when the cat is sprinting at incredible speeds that frequently reach over 100 kph.

 

Example Species:

Leopard
Panthera pardus

Length: 0.9-1.9 m
Weight: 37-90 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: West, Central, South, East and South-East Asia and Africa
Status: Lower risk

 

Leopard (Panthera pardus)
Edinburgh Zoo, UK

 

Tiger
Panthera tigris

Length: 1.4-2.8 m
Weight: 100-300 kg
Social unit: Individual
Region: South and East Asia
Status: Endangered

 

Tigress and cub (Panthera tigris)
Dudley Zoological Gardens

 

White tiger cub (Panthera tigris)
West Midlands Safari Park

 

Tigress (Panthera tigris)
Scotland Zoo, UK

 

Tiger skull (Panthera tigris)
Bristol University Museum, UK

 

African lion
Panthera leo

Length: 1.7-2.5 m
Weight: 150-250 kg
Social unit: Group
Region: Africa and South Asia
Status: Vulnerable

African lioness (Panthera leo)
Woburn Safari Park, UK

 

White lion and lioness (Panthera leo)
West Midlands Safari Park, UK

 

Lion skull (Panthera leo)
Bristol University Museum, UK

 


Family: Pinnipedia
Species: 34

All members of the Pinnipedia are extremely agile in water with streamlined bodies and a thick layer of blubber beneath the fur that acts as insulation, provides buoyancy, protects the organs and acts as an energy store. All species have developed flippers instead of feet for a fully aquatic lifestyle tough all come onto land to breed. True seals have rear flippers that point backwards making terrestrial locomotion very difficult. Sea lions and walruses have external ears and rear flippers that can be rotated. Although all can move around on land, true seals are reduced to shuffling along on their bellies whilst eared seals and walruses can lollop on two front flippers and a joint effort from their rear flippers. Only eared seals (sea lions and fur seals) and walruses can support themselves in an upright position on land. All pinnipeds have short skulls, thick necks and a streamlined torpedo shaped body with a flexible spine. Walruses have virtually no fur, but have distinctive elongated teeth called tusks. They use their tusks for establishing dominance and the right to mate with females. All other seals and sea lions have thick fur and male sea lions have a dense area of fur around their neck, referred to as a mane. Although only male sea lions exhibit the mane, most other species of pinniped display sexual dimorphism in that the male is up to three times the weight of the female.

 

Example Species:

New Zealand sea lion
Phocarctos hookeri

Length: 2-3.3 m
Weight: 300-450 kg
Social unit: Variable
Region: Subantarctic islands South of New Zealand
Status: Vulnerable

Male and female New Zealand sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri)
Edinburgh Zoo, UK

 

Grey seal
Halicheorus grypus

Length: 2-2.5 m
Weight: 170-310 kg
Social unit: Variable
Region: North Atlantic and Baltic Sea
Status: Common

 

Grey seal (Halicheorus grypus)
Whipsnade Wildlife Park, UK

 

Complete articulated skeleton of a male grey seal (Halicheorus grypus)
Bristol City Museum, UK

 

The two main apomorphies that all members of the Order Carnivora exhibit are the carnassials and the penis bone. The penis bone is normally lost in osteological collections along with many phalanges and other small bones. However, the penis bone can be seen in the grey seal skeleton specimen above.

 

Male grey seal (Halicheorus grypus)
Skull (left) and rear view of complete articulated skeleton (right)
Bristol City Museum, UK

 

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Author: Emma-Louise Nicholls
Last updated: 20th November 2005
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Websites produced by students on the MSc Palaeobiology programme in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol for academic year 2005-6